I came of age in the 70s—went to a travel agency to buy my plane ticket home from college, stopped at the bank to deposit my pay check and get a bit of cash, browsed the university library card catalogue while researching a report.
My dad stockpiled National Geographic magazines in our basement. Occasionally, I’d scan the topics listed on the spines. Pull one out. And explore.
By today’s standards, this life was grossly inefficient. Inconvenient. Woefully ill informed. Swaths of the wider world were largely unknown.
And yet, I evoke that life fondly.
A decade earlier, when I was a child, The Wizard of Oz played on TV only one night each year. I never missed watching it, nor did my friends. Teachers wouldn’t assign homework. It was an early dinner, quick bath, a tin of jiffy pop shaken over a red-hot coil burner. I can smell it. In my perfect memory, it’s not burning.
But while my memories are crisp, it’s harder to recall the inflection points. The first ticket I bought online. The first time my check was directly deposited. The first question that I ever googled.
History is learned as a series of discrete events—a list of memorized dates. Yet life plays out on a continuum of imperceptible change. Until one day you realize that everything has changed.
Let me stay in the past a bit longer. It was probably the late 60s when I met Linda Frace. We were 9 or 10 when our parents happened to camp next to each other on Lake Bomoseen in Vermont. Linda and I played every day—tether ball, hopscotch, flashlight tag. At the end of the week, we exchanged addresses and kept in touch for a few years by writing a letter now and again. Eventually, our friendship ran it’s course as friendships once did.
I think about Linda nostalgically but with no real yearning to know the details of her life. I grew up in a time when impermanence was our only option.
I’ve thought about all of this over the last months as I prepared to select my new theme—a guiding principle to reorient my life in the new year. Mid year, when I became quite ill and life felt more finite, I thought my theme would be stretching my boundaries. I made a list of goals.
Then my eldest child sent me an article about noise pollution. It dealt with both the literal increase in noise levels—auditory noise—and the more insidious informational noise. Every fact, every answer to every question is a few keystrokes away. I can explore the farthest reaches of the no-longer-unknown world—find photos, watch videos. With the push of a button, I can convert the most ephemeral conversation into a life-long “friend.”
Yet is this what I want?
I switched themes from pushing my boundaries to embracing simplicity. At first, the themes seemed polar opposites, until I defined a a new list of goals and compare the two lists. Simplicity, I realized, is at the core of my discomfort zone.
Things on both lists:
- Master chopsticks
- Eat at restaurants without reading reviews
- Find my way without a GPS
- Study meditation in Nepal
- Travel from Gdańsk to Skopje with no itinerary (and apparently, with no GPS)
Things I’ve added:
- Read only paper books
- Eat zero processed foods
- Sit in a moment each day
- Write about it
My goal is to google less, serendipitize more. (Yes. I created that verb.)
I’m a child of the 70s—the decade wedged between tie dye and button down. It was the unsexy decade that, when I think about it, changed everything. Microprocessors were born. As was ARPANET—the precursor to the internet and the subject of a class I took in the early 80s as a new IBMer. What would we ever do with that? I wondered.
I disagree, Billy Joel; we actually did start the fire.
Yet even as I rail against it, technology supported my life—and now enables it. To buy a plane or train ticket in minutes on my phone. To pay my bills online. To directly deposit my pension check. To FaceTime my grandchildren from anywhere.
Technology is both beauty and the beast. And it’s mine alone to tame.
Had I been born 20 years later, I would have watched The Wizard of Oz whenever I pleased. Never entered a bank or travel agency or library. Known the names and birthdays of generations of Fraces. We would reach out sporadically, maybe decide that our families should meet on the shores of Lake Bomoseen.
But had I been born 20 years later, would I remember the beauty of a fleeting moment—one that is captured and conjured exclusively in my own mind?
Dear travel gods: when I’m lost between Gdańsk and Skopje with nothing but my wits, may serendipity rain down.
I’ve come to realize that Linda’s role in my life wasn’t about a week-long friendship but rather served as a catalyst for a memory. Not of her, but of me. Of my childhood. Of how much my parents loved to camp in Vermont.
Skipping stones. Rowing across the lake. Roasting marshmallows under the stars. Rounding a bend completely unaware of what lay ahead.